The expression goes, "Necessity is the mother of invention." And right now there is a need for NASA and the United States to have reliable access to low Earth orbit from homegrown sources. So, NASA's Commercial Crew Program and a number of American-led private companies are working together on new and innovative plans to do just that.
For example, when NASA astronauts journey to the International Space Station again after being launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., they could do so atop the same vehicle that rocketed the agency's Curiosity rover toward the surface of Mars on Nov. 26.
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket is just one viable spaceflight system being matured for CCP media learned during a program update from NASA's Kennedy Space Center and facilities tour on Nov. 22.
Andy Aldrin, director of business development for ULA, said the company's goal is to make the Atlas V safe for astronaut crews without altering its proven design and successful track record.
"The idea is that we'll fly the same vehicle with the addition of an emergency detection system," Aldrin said in the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) where another Atlas V is being processed for a military launch next February.
Six other aerospace companies, including Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK), Blue Origin, The Boeing Co., Excalibur Almaz Inc., Sierra Nevada Corp., and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), are working on launch vehicle and spacecraft designs under CCP's Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) activities.
Ed Mango, CCP's program manager, said he's pleased with the innovative solutions each company is bringing to the table to drive down the cost of space travel. Mango said each company has a real shot at taking crews to the space station or other low Earth orbit destinations around the middle of the decade.
"It's like you're trying to climb a mountain and there's three or four ways to get to the top the mountain," Mango said. "One guy might be higher at one point in the climb, but he's got a tougher road ahead of him. Another guy might be taking the long way around the mountain, but it might be an easier way to get to the top."
An example of one of the innovating solutions Mango is referring to is Boeing using spin-form technology rather than traditional welding to manufacture its CST-100 spacecraft or developing a land landing system to reduce salt water from compromising the integrity of the spacecraft during ocean landings.
"Boeing is working to provide a safe and affordable crew transportation system to NASA," said Chuck Hardison, the production and ground operations manager of The Boeing Co.'s Commercial Crew Transportation System in Kennedy's Orbiter Processing Facility-3 (OPF-3). The company is leasing OPF-3, the Processing Control Facility (PCC) and Space Shuttle Main Engine Shop to design, manufacture and integrate its capsule capable of carrying up to seven astronauts into space.
On Space Launch Complex-40 on CCAFS, media received a status update on SpaceX, which is busy preparing for the launch of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) Program. The goal of the program is to take cargo to the space station.
For CCP, though, the company is working to make those same systems safe for human travel. Scott Henderson, director of mission assurance for SpaceX, said one such safety measure under discussion is a launch abort system that would push astronauts away from the launch pad in the event of an emergency, which is different than the traditional pull system of NASA's Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.
It's the freedom to develop those solutions, and at a necessary pace, that provides Mango with the confidence to enable NASA's astronauts transportation to and from the International Space Station within the next five years and help open up space to more people than ever before.
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